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The New Unity Partnership
W ith union membership and density down, current wisdom among the major U.S. unions seems to boil down to one mantra: organize, organize, organize. Increasingly, unions are focusing their resources on bringing in new members and to facilitate this, the leaders of five major U.S. unions are planning an unprecedented restructuring of the AFL-CIO.
The model these five people—Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees Union (SEIU); John Wilhelm, Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE); Bruce Raynor, Garment and Textile Workers (UNITE); Doug Mc- Carron, Carpenters Union (not an AFLCIO union); and Terrence O’Sullivan, Laborers Union—have devised is called the New Unity Partnership.
Among its major elements, the NUP would consolidate many smaller unions into a few larger ones and redraw some jurisdictional lines (UNITE would organize non-food retail workers, traditionally represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union). Additionally, many AFL-CIO departments (including Health & Safety, Education, and Civil & Human Rights) would be reduced or eliminated, while the Organizing department would be replaced with a “strategic growth department.”
Since it was first unveiled in a Business Week article last fall, the NUP has been hotly debated within the labor movement. Though some of its architects have insisted that the NUP is only a brainstorm, it is a remarkably detailed brainstorm that has been defended by high- ranking union officials, particularly within SEIU.
Density vs. Democracy
T he debate surrounding the New Unity Partnership has often come down to an argument about union density vs. union democracy. NUP proponents, like SEIU Vice President Tom Woodruff, argue that democracy within unions is meaningless until those unions represent the majority of workers in a given industry, achieving real union density.
NUP critics, like Communication Workers Union (CWA) executive vice president Larry Cohen, argue that without member involvement in democratic unions, density might be achieved, but the members would be disengaged from the union and thus unlikely to use the leverage that density gives them.
In reality, density vs. democracy is a false dichotomy as the two could potentially serve to reinforce each other. As Cohen points out, democratic unions foster member engagement and engaged members are essential to a revitalized labor movement. Nonunion workers are more likely to join a union if they see it as member-driven, since they will not want to pay dues to an organization in which they have no agency. One reason that many workers are skeptical about unions is that they perceive unions as bureacratic and corrupt. Democratic unions are, in one sense, an organizing tool, as they offer an effective counter to this perception.
There are many local examples to support this, one being the CWA’s effective use of member-organizers. In a recent article for Labor Notes magazine, CWA member-organizer Dave Coker described how workers—rather than staffers or bureaucrats—succesfully organized an InteliCoat paper and component plant in Mathews, North Carolina. One CWA official told Coker, “Members have more of a vested interest than someone who has never been a card-carrying rank and filer.”
In a way, internal democracy is part of the path to union density. Perhaps more importantly, a narrow focus on either democracy or density is dangerous for the labor movement, as it limits the movement’s ability to address the complex challenges, internal and external, it currently faces.
While increased union density is essential for a revitalized labor movement, so is a more militant union leadership. For the last decade, strikes and other union-led actions aimed at taking power in the workplace have been in decline (according to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Among those strikes, major victories have been few and far between.
Even in the case of a protracted strike, union leaders are careful to let the press and the public know that they want not just what’s good for their workers, but what’s good for business as well. “We don’t want to hurt the company,” is a standard line from union leaders, even as companies go out of their way to hurt the workers.
Even with increased density, if union leaders are not willing to go after exploitative employers aggressively, adopting the tactics and rhetoric of direct confrontation, it seems unlikely that the labor movement will reverse its fortunes. In a democratic union, where decisions are made by workers who have first-hand experience of being screwed by their boss, union leadership is more likely to be militant.
U nfortunately, the unions behind the NUP seem solely focused on union density and this has led them to make some troubling political maneuvers. Two examples: last summer, Stern, O’Sullivan, and Wilhelm sent a letter to union officials urging them to “follow their example by giving $1,000 or more to the re-election campaign of Dennis Hastert”; last autumn, leaked documents from NUP planning sessions cited the NUP’s intention to “meet with Karl Rove,” presumably to discuss how the NUP might be able to work with Rove and the Bush administration.
These unions’ willingness to work with or support virulently anti-union Republicans is indicative of what might accurately be characterized as their “density at all costs” attitude. It often appears that if a politician or employer is willing to give the NUP unions what they want in terms of organizing, the unions will support that politician or employer, no matter what effect that support has on their members or the labor movement as a whole.
On the local level, this attitude has manifested itself most obviously in SEIU/1199 President Dennis Rivera’s endorsement of New York Governor George Pataki and in HERE Local 26 President Janice Loux’s willingness to cross the picket lines of other city unions to show her support for Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. If these unions were truly democratic, so that leaders like Loux and Rivera were accountable to their members, such actions would not be possible—which is perhaps why these unions’ leaders often respond negatively to calls for increased democracy.
The “density at all costs” attitude is also reflected in how NUP unions often approach contract negotiations. Even with some of the most abusive employers, these unions have shown a willingness to negotiate deals with employers that include major concessions on workplace conditions or pay and benefits, if the employer will grant the union increased organizing rights. Since these unions are not internally democratic, their members have little to no say about these concessions.
SEIU’s 1997 negotiations with the Kaiser Permanente healthcare company serve as an excellent example. At Kaiser, in exchange for organizing rights (and wage and benefit gains), SEIU agreed to go along with management’s push to replace registered nurses with lesser-licensed or unlicensed hospital staff, and a variety of other cost-cutting measures. So, in order to secure organizing access, SEIU was willing to participate in the de-skilling of the nursing profession, which in the long-term will have a disastrous effect on all nurses, including those represented by SEIU.
These unions’ willingness to “go it alone” (as evidenced by their secretive NUP planning, as well as their political activities) is ultimately very dangerous for the labor movement. Keep in mind, Carpenters President McCarron yanked the Carpenters from the AFL-CIO rather than be subject to rules that forbid raiding of other construction unions. There’s no way to gauge what type of influence McCarron is having on Stern, Wilhelm, Raynor, and O’Sullivan, but it’s safe to say that McCarron’s involvement in the NUP (given his support for Bush, contempt for union democracy, and lack of interest in cross-union solidarity) is troubling.
Moreover, as long-time labor journalist Harry Kelber pointed out in an article for T h e Labor Educator , four of the five union leaders behind the NUP have been involved in high-level strategizing within the AFL-CIO for years, as members of its executive council, so they are at least partly responsible for its stagnancy. “If these unions haven’t been able to organize millions of workers until now,” asked Kelber, “why should we believe they’ll succeed under their New Partnership?”
While it is commendable that these union presidents are willing to rethink past practices, they need to acknowledge that five men sitting around a table will not be capable of revitalizing the labor movement. If they plan on moving forward with their model without first opening up the debate, the future of U.S. labor could be filled with infighting and fragmentation. Bush and his buddies could not dream of a better fortune.
William Johnson is the assistant editor of Labor Notes magazine. He lives and works in Detroit.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
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ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
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CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
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HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.